We can’t blame American progressives for yearning to relive the civil rights movement. Those were heady days. Opposition to segregation — real ‘structural racism’ — placed you conspicuously on the proverbial right side of history. Joining the cause was like shooting up moral heroin.
So maybe it’s predictable that when talking up his two voting rights bills in Atlanta last week, Joe Biden evoked the 1963 bombing of a black church in Alabama and MLK’s storied march in Selma two years later. Yet it’s one thing to wax nostalgic, quite another to insist that it’s still 1965 — much less 1865. Biden’s speech recalled a Civil War re-enactment, with polyester Union uniforms and Springfield musket replicas whose dummy cartridges poof pale smoke.
Owing to two disobliging Democratic senators, both federal power-grab acts are probably dead, but the grandiloquent speechifying in their support is bound to live on. Biden claimed that the vote on this legislation would represent one of those ‘moments so stark that they divide all that came before from everything that followed. They stop time’. Thus ‘each one of the members of the Senate is going to be judged by history on where they stood before the vote and where they stood after the vote’.
What makes these bills a defining test of who we are as a people (you know the impassioned president’s emphatic rhetorical drill, Obama microwaved to lukewarm: ‘it’s about all of us. It’s about the people. It’s about America’) are efforts by red-state legislatures to install what Biden calls ‘Jim Crow 2.0’. In other words, Republicans are returning the US to the period following the Civil War and before the civil rights movement, when restrictive Southern laws effectively denied black citizens the vote. Talk about turning back the clock! For since the 2020 general election, red states have variously: limited the number of ballot drop boxes (for submitting absentee/mail-in ballots) and/or restricted their use to certain times of day, reduced early voting, cut the period for requesting absentee ballots, prevented absentee ballots from being sent to the entire electorate automatically, tightened voting by mail and brought back lynching.
Sorry. Bad joke. Of course they didn’t bring back lynching. But you’d have thought from Biden’s pounding of the podium (‘I’m tired of being quiet!’ bang) that they had.
As the president warns democracy itself is now at risk, it’s disconcerting to recall that during the better part of my lifetime, during which democracy was not, by all accounts, at risk, American elections took place on a single day. Voting was overwhelmingly in person. Polls in many states opened at 8 a.m. and closed at 5 or 6 p.m. Nowadays, that can be 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Way back when, we never had ‘early voting’ at all, much less for many weeks beforehand. Drop boxes? Not long ago, election officials might have assumed a ‘drop box’ was for drug dealers. For most of my life, Americans didn’t vote by mail. Absentee ballots were relatively few, requested well in advance and granted only for limited reasons like being abroad. Now in multiple states the entire electorate may request an absentee ballot, no questions asked.
Yet for many Democrats today, opposition to 24-hour voting, the electoral version of IHOP, constitutes ‘voter suppression’. Biden’s Freedom to Vote Act even requires states to count late ballots with no postmark.
Regarding Georgia’s ban on providing food and drink to voting queues, about which the president is aghast (‘What in the hell — heck are we talking about? I mean, think about it. That’s not America’), most states forbid electioneering within a set distance from the polls, and that includes plying voters with pork barbecue and Mountain Dew.
The American right to vote is not in peril. While some states have clawed back permissive election procedures introduced during Covid, most such states have not even fully returned to their stricter pre-pandemic rules. Biden observed gravely last week: ‘Last year alone, 19 states not only proposed but enacted 34 laws attacking voting rights. There were nearly 400 additional bills Republican members of state legislatures tried to pass.’ But according to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, as of May last year, 48 states had indeed introduced 389 restrictive voting bills. Yet more than twice as many proposed bills expanded access to voting. Why, any day now I expect the US to legalise voting by carrier pigeon, spit ball and paper airplane.
Biden’s complementary John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would restore a host of southern states to the naughty step. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down this mark-of-Cain aspect of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and for good reason. It forced certain states with a history of discrimination to ask the Justice Department ‘Mother, may I?’ every time they even slightly revised their electoral rules — such as moving the location of a single polling place. But this selective stigmatisation relied on damning statistics that were then 40, now 50, years old. The South has moved on. Revival of the Voting Rights Act would be yet another sign that Democrats prefer to live in the past.
Biden’s fiery challenge over chicken-feed election-law changes — ‘Do you want to be on the side of Dr King or George Wallace?…John Lewis or Bull Connor?…Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?’ — employed hyperbole as divisive as it was absurd. American race relations are a hash, but not because of any ‘new Jim Crow’. The moral clarity of the 1960s has given way to murk. Affirmative action has undermined black confidence and inflamed white resentment. Black Lives Matter et al have hyper-racialised the left to the level of insanity. Seemingly intractable black-on-black violence is getting worse. The progressive answer to racial achievement gaps — eliminating educational standards altogether — courts disaster. Pretending America is still back in Lyndon Johnson’s administration — or Abraham Lincoln’s — may puff up Biden’s oratory. But dated grandstanding addresses none of the country’s problems of the present, and it insults the likes of Martin Luther King. If the US remains in the same place fifty-some years later, he accomplished nothing.